Four Women of the Protestant Reformation


Katharine von Bora, nun and pastor’s wife (1499-1552)
Anne Askew, poet and martyr (1520-1546)
Amelia Lanyer, poet and early feminist (1569–1645)
Margaret Fell, Quaker leader and writer (1614 – 1702)


Katharine von Bora, nun and pastor’s wife (1499-1552)

Katharine von Bora Cranach

Katharine is considered an important participant of the Reformation because she provided a model for clergy marriages, and helped define Protestant family life.

Katharine’s early life:  Katharine was sent to a convent school at 5 and eventually took vows as a Cistercian nun. After several years of conventional religious life, she became interested in the spreading Protestant reform. Conspiring with several other nuns to leave their convent, Katharine contacted Martin Luther and begged for his help. In 1523 she and other nuns escaped, and she was taken in by the family of the painter Lucas Cranach (who painted her portrait, above).

Katharine’s marriage: Luther found husbands for most of the escaped nuns, but not for Katharine. In the end, she decided she would only marry either Luther or his friend, Nicholas von Amsdorf.  Luther’s close associates thought this marriage would damage the cause of the Reformation, but Luther’s father supported his son (as did Cranach). Luther eventually decided that “his marriage would please his father, rile the pope, cause the angels to laugh and the devils to weep.” The result was the wedding on June 13, 1525 of a 42-year-old former monk and a 26-year-old former nun.

By all accounts, it was a happy and affectionate union: Martin and Katharine made their home in the abandoned monastery where Luther had lived before the Reformation. Katherine bore six children, ran the household, and organized the family finances. She grew much of what they ate, including livestock and vegetables; she also cooked the meals and, famously, brewed the beer. To boost their income, she made use of the rooms in the former monastery, offering board and lodging for as many as 30 paying students and visitors.

Katharina had authority unusual for women in her time: Luther admired her intellect, calling her Doctora Lutherin.  In addition to the support she provided for the family and Martin’s students, Katharine dealt with Luther’s publishers and was his sole heir. Although we know little of her own views, we do know that she loved her husband deeply. After his death in 1546, she wrote:

He gave so much of himself in service not only to one town or to one country, but to the whole world. Yes, my sorrow is so deep that no words can express my heartbreak, and it is humanly impossible to understand what state of mind and spirit I am in . . . I can neither eat nor drink, not even sleep . . . God knows that when I think of having lost him, I can neither talk nor write in all my suffering.


Anne Askew, poet and martyr (1520-1546)

Anne Askew burning
Woodcut of the burning of Anne Askew in 1546

Anne Askew was an English poet and Protestant who was trapped in a miserable marriage to a Catholic, then condemned as a heretic and burned at the stake.

Anne’s life:  Anne was born to a wealthy landowner who arranged her marriage to a Roman Catholic. She was only 15 when she married, but Anne was already a devout Protestant. The couple fought over religion; eventually her husband threw her out for being Protestant (or, in another version, she left her husband).  In either case, Anne then moved to London, where she became a “Gospeler” or street preacher to the poor.

Anne’s arrest: In March 1545, her husband had her arrested. She escaped and returned to London to continue preaching.  The next year she was arrested again and tortured in the Tower of London.  Even under torture, she refused to renounce her Protestant beliefs and also refused to give up the names of women who had helped her. She was convicted of heresy and condemned to death. Due to the torture she had endured, she had to be carried to the stake on a chair, where she was burned along with three other Protestants.

The background to Anne’s arrest: Anne was caught up in a court struggle between Catholics and Protestants in the last year of Henry VIII’s reign. Court advisors told the dying Henry that he needed to stop Protestant reform in order to negotiate with the Catholic Emperor Charles V.  Emboldened, traditional Catholics were arresting low-level Protestants in the hope that they would implicate others more highly placed. (The persons rounded up were in many cases strongly linked to Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury. Anne Askew’s brother, Edward Ayscough, was one of Cranmer’s servants.) The men who tortured Askew in the Tower may have been trying to implicate the Henry’s queen, Catherine Parr, through her close friends, who were also suspected of having Protestant beliefs.

The Examinations is Anne Askew’s account of her ordeal and her beliefs. One of the most important autobiographical accounts of the religious turmoil of the 16th century, it is a testament to her intelligence and bravery. Her writing is revolutionary because it depicts her confrontations with male authority figures of the time, who challenged every aspect of her life – from her divorce (which she initiated) to her religious beliefs (which set her apart as a devout Protestant). It also offers a unique look into the lives of 16th century women.


Amelia Lanyer, poet and early feminist (1569–1645)

Amelia Lanyer
There are no known portraits of Emilia Lanier,
but some argue that this miniature portrait by
Nicholas Hilliard (in 1593) depicts her.

Amelia Lanyer was the first Englishwoman to publish her poetry; many scholars today refer to her style and arguments as ‘proto-feminist’.  

Amelia’s Life: Amelia’s father, a musician at the court of Elizabeth I, died when Amelia was only seven, after which she was sent to live with the countess of Kent. The countess valued education for girls as well as boys, and may have greatly influenced Amelia’s later decision to publish her writing.  At 18, Amelia became the mistress of Tudor courtier Henry Carey.  Several years later, when she became pregnant with Carey’s child, he paid her off.  She was then married to her cousin Alfonso Lanier. After Alfonso’s death, Amelia supported herself by running a school but, due to disputes over the correct rent price, was arrested on two different occasions. Her dreams of running a prosperous school ended.

Amelia’s poetry: Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (Hail, God, King of the Jews) was published in 1611.  This collection centers on the title poem, which tells the story of Christ’s passion almost entirely from the point of view of the women who surround him. Amelia defends Eve (and women in general) by arguing that Eve has been wrongly blamed for the original sin of eating the forbidden fruit. Adam should share most of the guilt, because he was stronger than Eve and should have been able to resist the temptation. She also points to the dedication of the Christ’s women followers, who stayed with him throughout the Passion, and witnessed to his Resurrection. While the women of the Bible were always seen as weaker than men, Lanier’s poetry argued that if either gender would be placed nearer the ‘everlasting throne’ of Jesus, it should be the female sex.

Eve’s Apology: Many critics view Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum as one of the earliest feminist works of British literature. In ‘Eve’s Apology’ (lines 745–840 of Salve Deus Rex) Lanier describes two biblical women striving towards union with Christ. She has Eve say that Adam should share the blame of the fall of Man. If women are to be subservient to men, men should be protecting women.  Adam should have stopped Eve from eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, but he instead succumbed to temptation. After describing succeeding generations of biblical women, Lanier comes in the end to Pilate’s wife, who tries to save Jesus’ life, therefore remedying any fault of Eve’s.  And so Lanier places greater blame on the men responsible for Jesus’ death, writing:

Her weakness did the serpent’s words obey,
But you in malice God’s dear Son betray.  


Margaret Fell, Quaker leader and writer (1614 – 1702)

Margaret Fell

Margaret Fell was a founder of the Religious Society of Friends and is popularly known as the ‘Mother of Quakerism’.

Margaret’s life: Margaret married Thomas Fell, a prosperous barrister, in 1632, and thus became the lady of Swarthmoor Hall. In late June 1652, the Quaker preacher George Fox visited Swarthmoor. Margaret later wrote that George Fox was the one “who opened us a book that we had never read in, nor indeed had never heard that it was our duty to read in it (to wit) the Light of Christ in our consciences, our minds never being turned towards it before.” Over the next weeks she and many of her household became convinced Friends.

Swarthmoor Hall then became a center of Quaker activity. Margaret served as an unofficial secretary for the Society of Friends, receiving and forwarding letters from missionaries (both male and female), and passing along admonitions to them from Fox and others. She wrote many letters herself, and collected and disbursed funds for those on missions. After her husband’s death in 1658, she retained control of Swarthmoor Hall, which continued to be a meeting place for Friends and a haven from persecution.

Margaret’s varied ministries:  Because she was one of the few founding members of the Religious Society of Friends who was an established member of the gentry, Margaret was frequently asked to intercede in cases of persecution or arrests. She traveled from Lancashire to London to petition King Charles II and his parliament in 1660 and 1662 for freedom of conscience in religious matters (a petition signed by George Fox and other prominent male Quakers was only made after Margaret’s petition). In 1664 she was arrested for failing to take an oath and for allowing Quaker Meetings to be held in her home. She defended herself by saying that “as long as the Lord blessed her with a home, she would worship him in it”. She spent six months in Lancaster Gaol, after which she was sentenced to life imprisonment and forfeiture of her property. She remained in prison until 1668, during which time she wrote religious pamphlets and epistles. Her most famous work is ‘Women’s Speaking Justified’, a scripture-based argument for women’s ministry, and one of the major texts on women’s religious leadership in the 17th century. In this short pamphlet, Fell bases her argument for equality of the sexes on the basic premises of Quakerism – that is, the spiritual equality of women and men. Her belief was that God created all human beings, therefore both men and women were capable of not only possessing the Inner Light but also the ability to be a prophet.

Margaret’s marriage to George Fox: Having been released by order of the King and Council, Margaret married Fox in 1669. On returning to Lancashire after her marriage, she was again imprisoned for breaking the Conventicle Act (which forbade groups of 5 or more for worshiping outside the Church of England). Shortly after her release, George Fox departed on a mission to America, but he too was imprisoned again on his return in 1673. Margaret again traveled to London to intercede on his behalf, and Fox was eventually freed in 1675. After this, they spent about a year together, establishing the new organizational structure of the Society of Friends. Fox spent most of the rest of his life thereafter abroad or in London until his death in 1691, while Margaret Fell spent most of the rest of her life at Swarthmoor. Surviving both husbands by a number of years, she continued to take an active part in the affairs of the Society of Friends, including the changes in the 1690s following partial legal tolerance of Quakers, when she was well into her eighties.

 Quaker views of women

Quaker women preaching
A woman ‘ministers’ (speaks to the assembly) at a Quaker meeting

Early Quaker views toward women were very progressive, and by the late 19th century this would bear fruit through the leadership of Quaker women in the American abolitionist and feminist movements. ‘Ministry’ (the right to speak during a Quaker meeting) was open to women from the very beginnings of the movement in the 1650s.   Especially in the early years, a large number — possibly even a majority – of traveling Quaker preachers were women. Aside from their ‘ministry’, Quaker women were also allowed to travel alone and to publish, which was also unusual for the time.

Inclusion of women is part of what is now called the ‘Testimony of Equality.’ However, despite that Testimony, women’s roles were not completely equal for many years. In the beginning, ‘Meetings for Business’ were dominated by male Friends, but within 25 years, George Fox ordered establishment of separate women’s meetings when he faced challenges to his leadership. (Particularly controversial was Fox’s decision that women’s ‘Meetings for Discipline’ should be the first to pass on a couple’s intention to be married.)  Separate meetings for men and women declined by the 19th century and were eventually eliminated; but it should be noted that women having authority over any business at all – let alone authority over men (in the form of approving or denying marriages) – was a radical move in the 17th century, and gave women then-rare experience in running organizations.

Quakers were heavily involved in the 19th century movement for women’s rights in America; the landmark 1848 Seneca Falls Declaration was in large part the work of Quaker women, and has numerous Quaker signatories, well out of proportion to the number of Quakers in American society at large. Quaker involvement in women’s issues continued into the 20th and 21st centuries, with individual Quakers playing significant roles in organizations continuing to work on women’s rights.


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